Dedicated stations are proving that there’s more to Italian food than pizza and spaghetti with meatballs.
“Italian food works very well with an exhibition cooking station, and that’s where we’ll be taking it in the future,” declares Christian Fischer, corporate executive chef for Lackmann Culinary Services, Woodbury, N.Y. “It was always expensive, in terms of food and labor, and wasteful to do Italian food in a traditional entrée station, but doing to-order cooking allows us to feed a larger number of people with different tastes.”
It’s all part of the “Gourmet Your Way” philosophy that is being rolled out through the company’s 75 accounts in a four-state area of the Northeast, concentrated in the B&I and higher education sectors. Fischer, who joined the company in the spring of 2006, explains the perspective: “Food has become a very personal experience to the consumer. I call it the Starbucks Syndrome. If you’d told me 10 years ago that people would be paying $5 for the privilege of having a cup of coffee the way they want it—caffeinated, decaffeinated, flavored, latte, espresso, soy milk—I’d have said you were crazy. Now people expect variety and food prepared exactly the way they want it.”
Made to order fresh: And they’re willing to wait for it, which means that food made to order has not only become a possibility but an expectation. That’s the basis of the Gourmet Your Way strategy: making food that’s entirely to the customer’s specifications, in an exhibition setting that emphasizes freshness and variety.
Lackmann’s new Italian platform—so new, in fact, that the locations are only being installed now—is called Al Forno (“from the oven”), and it depends on new high-speed ovens that can cook an individual deep-dish pasta bake in just 40 seconds, versus 45 minutes or more in a conventional oven. The new ovens are compact and relatively affordable, making them appropriate for all but the smallest locations.
The premise behind Al Forno is to allow patrons to enjoy a truly customized Italian dining experience. “Who says you can’t have veal Oscar with an Italian sauce?” asks Fischer rhetorically. And so the menu offerings focus on Northern Italian style specialties such as veal, pork and chicken, in addition to pastas, with an array of different housemade sauces and toppings (such as grilled vegetables and proteins) that can be mixed and matched into individual pan- and oven-finished meals.
“If the customer wants chicken Parmesan without the cheese, we can do that,” says Fischer, likening the finished product to chicken Milanese (a classic breaded cutlet) with sauce.
The menu selection is also being modernized with lighter sauces, local and organic ingredients where possible, and pasta alternatives such as quinoa and gluten-free substitutes. “We’re trying to stay away from heavy sauces like Alfredo, and give customers choices that are more in keeping with today’s lifestyles and dietary concerns,” says Fischer.
Menu options include baked pastas ranging from traditional baked ziti to macaroni and cheese made with an Italian sauce; soufflés and Italian-style quiches; veal, chicken and other proteins that can be assembled with other ingredients to create everything from comforting Parmesan to sophisticated capriccioso (layered with sage, prosciutto and cheese); panini and other toasted sandwiches, and individual pizzas with just about any topping. “Why would anyone want to have a pre-prepared entrée when they can have something that’s made fresh just for them?” says Fischer.
Beyond basic: Flexibility is also the guiding principle behind Maria’s, one of 10 dedicated stations in the South Campus facility at the University of Maryland.
“We’re trying to provide students with fresher, more sophisticated foods,” says Chef/Production Manager Sebastien Watteau, who joined the staff two years ago, charged with just that task. “We had been doing basic, more institutional-quality Italian food, like spaghetti and meatballs, and ravioli and tortellini with generic sauces. But we saw a need for something more authentic, fresh and fun. And we needed to train the staff to be comfortable with more complex cooking methods.”
Watteau admits that there will always be students for whom pizza and spaghetti are quite enough, and Maria’s still does provide that. “But we wanted to appeal to those with gourmet palates, so we’ve been introducing more entrees, as well as homemade sauces and our own signature recipes.”
Now the three-week menu rotation might include daily specialties such as Chicken Puttanesca (sautéed chicken strips with kalamata olives, capers and tomatoes), Fettuccine & Mushroom Gorgonzola, Veal Marsala, Mediterranean Salmon, Beef & Artichokes, Chicken Saltimbocca (with prosciutto and sage) and Cajun Chicken (a hit signature dish made with Cajun spices and Alfredo sauce), as well as the more predictable pasta of the day with a choice of sauces such as marinara and Alfredo.
Pizza has also been upgraded, with more toppings introduced, and new sauces featuring the likes of fresh basil, oregano and roasted garlic. “Sauces are key to good Italian food,” notes Watteau. Sicilian-style thick-crust pies with extra cheese have also been added—the can’t-lose combination of bread, cheese and tasty sauce, adds the chef.
The new Italian program has been extraordinarily successful, says Watteau, with favorites like the Cajun Chicken, Beef & Artichokes and Pasta Jambalaya (the Cajun specialty, with pasta filling in for the more traditional rice) selling to the tune of 400 or more orders a day. “Plus the students, and the production crew, are learning more about food.”
Raiding the (Italian) Pantry
A few flavorful ingredients are the key to authentic Italian cuisine.
Italian cuisine is widely acknowledged to be one of the most inventive and diverse in the world (along with French and Chinese). Far from being the homogenous bloc that many Americans know, Italian food is characterized by its regionality—20 in all, from Abruzzo and Calabria to Umbria and the Valle d’Aosta, each with its own characteristic ingredients and specialties.
The most well-known to Americans are Tuscany and Sicily. Tuscan food is characterized by its simple grilled meats, hearty pastas (lasagna being one of the most famous) and bread-based specialties like crostini and bread salad. Sicilian cuisine has been influenced by centuries of outside cultures, including the Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Spaniards who have sailed—and settled—there; many specialties are influenced by the sweet-sour-salty combinations of raisins, vinegar and capers, including caponata (an eggplant relish). Sicily is also known for its sweets, including cannoli and cassata (a cheesecake-like confection that’s studded with candied fruit).
A few basic Italian ingredients can open up a whole new world of authentic Italian menu items.
Beans: Italians love their beans, especially the Tuscans, who have earned the nickname mangia-fagioli (bean-eaters). These beans are delicious cooked with pasta (as in pasta fagioli), in soups, or with flavoring ingredients as a main course: Borlotti: speckled dried shell beans, known as cranberry beans in the U.S.; or substitute kidney beans; Cannellini: small white beans, and Ceci: chickpeas.
Cheeses: Parmesan, Romano and mozzarella are the standard-bearers, but many other Italian specialty cheeses (and their domestic knockoffs) are great additions to menus, including: Asiago: a full-flavored, crumbly aged cheese reminiscent of Parmesan and cheddar; Fontina: a mild but nutty, smooth cow’s milk cheese that melts very well; Gorgonzola: Italy’s buttery, distinctively flavored answer to Roquefort and other blue-veined cheeses; Mascarpone: fresh, delicate triple-cream cheese that’s often used in dessert, and is indispensable in tiramisu, and Ricotta Salata: ricotta that has been pressed, dried and salted, with a taste similar to feta.
Specialties: These iconic ingredients and dishes could be the next to go mainstream: Farro: An ancient variety of wheat that is staging a comeback, as a healthy side dish, salad and soup ingredient; Fregola: Grainlike Sardinian pasta made from semolina; similar to couscous but more irregular in shape; Pancetta/Prosciutto: These cured pork products may be fairly expensive, but a little bit goes a long way toward adding flavor, and domestic versions represent a good value. Pancetta is made from pork belly (the same cut as bacon), cured but not smoked. It’s actually easy to make in-house. Prosciutto is a distinctively flavored dry-cured ham, served thinly sliced as an antipasto or in sandwiches, or as an ingredient in many traditional recipes.
Both flavorful meats are wonderful additions to pastas, sauces, vegetables and other specialties; Arancini: “Little oranges” of cooked risotto, rolled around such fillings as meat or tomato sauce, mozzarella and/or peas, then dusted with bread crumbs and sautéed; Panzanella: A Tuscan-style “bread salad” made from day-old or toasted bread; it’s usually mixed with tomatoes, olive oil, cucumbers, onions and basil for a summertime dish, but can be widely adapted, with the addition of grilled vegetables, chicken, hard-boiled eggs, tuna, or shrimp, and Ribollita: Another thrifty use of extra bread, this hearty “reboiled” soup contains beans, cabbage or kale, olive oil, potatoes and a thickening of day-old sliced bread.
Healthcare center restaurant positions itself as a dining destination.
At Virtues, the employee and visitors restaurant for Summa Health System, in Akron, Ohio, executive chef Frank Zifer is preparing foods that are both healthy and contemporary, including pastas and pizzas with California and Mediterranean influences.
“We opened Virtues last May because we wanted to provide an upscale restaurant within the Summa Health Center where patients’ families could have a nice meal without leaving the complex, and where doctors and other staff members could have a better dining experience. The restaurant is also open to the public. About 10-15% of our business is from the local community, but we just got a beer and wine license and we hope to leverage that by marketing ourselves as a destination restaurant.
We also offer takeout with pre-ordering, and we’ll deliver during dinner. About 20-25% of our sales are from takeout (well above the industry average of 10% for full-service restaurants). It’s the perfect market for takeout because we’ve got employees who are having onsite meetings, and people on duty who can’t leave their stations but want something better than what they can get at the cafeteria.
The menu is pretty wide-ranging to provide options for our guests, from steaks, sandwiches and salads to pasta and pizza, and we have a number of weekly features. The pasta and pizza start with the traditional Italian base, but then we infuse it with some variety and California/Mediterranean accents.
We sell a sausage pizza that’s very popular, but instead of just using sweet Italian sausage we add spinach and both mozzarella and provolone cheeses. We do special features, like a Caribbean jerked chicken pizza that’s made without sauce—just a light, jerk-spiced oil with torn bacon and provolone.
Pasta items include Angel Hair Vesuvio with tomato, shallots, olive oil and fresh herbs, and Grilled Chicken Penne, which is also topped with arugula, artichokes, oven-dried tomatoes, sweet basil and roasted tomato cream sauce. When we’re preparing pasta for takeout, we undercook the pasta slightly and add just a little more sauce, so that with carryover cooking once it’s packaged, the pasta is perfect, just as if you ordered it in the restaurant.
We noticed that some of the pastas weren’t selling quite as well as we expected, so we’ve added half-portions, and that’s increased sales tremendously. This way, someone can have a half-order of wild mushroom ravioli and a salad, or have a lighter meal. It’s given people options, without having to add more menu items.
With the new menu this fall, we’ll be doing that with items like steaks—we’re adding steak Diane, made with a four-ounce medallion, but you can have two medallions if you want. We’re adding other menu items with an Italian flair, like fried calamari with a spicy diablo sauce. Another item is a Brazilian strip steak with an Italian-style sauce, a sun-dried tomato and shiitake reduction.
And we’re working on more healthful options, like whole wheat crust for the pizza Margherita, and skim-milk mozzarella on the roasted vegetable pizza. We’re using more infused oils and light broths, instead of heavy sauces. It’s all part of serving the community with food that’s both healthy and cutting edge.”